Talk to the Hand: Why asking questions is essential

Speaking isn't communicating.

Posted Aug 12, 2008

Interviewed by Bob Costas, NBC's Olympics host, George W. Bush described his interactions with Soviet leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Hu Juntas. Virtually every question Costas asked amounted to: "So, did you tell them we were unhappy about their invasion of Georgia/human rights violations/denial of civil liberties?"

And Bush's answer was the same in each case: "I told them we were unhappy with their policies." With what result? Bush shared a box with Putin during the Olympic opening ceremonies, and apparently told him about America's unhappiness with Russian bombing of Georgian civilians. The next day, Russia invaded Georgia.

As for Bush's lecturing the Chinese on religious freedom et al., Costas seemed to be fascinated with Juntas' reactions. Bush seemed almost bemused by the question. "I can't read his mind. But he listened politely."

Of course, the President could have gotten a reading of what the Chinese leader was thinking - he could have asked him. But in this - as in so many interactions by politicians, moral and religious leaders, educators et al. - asking questions is not the order of the day. (Can you imagine John Edwards seeking reactions to his affair with Rielle Hunter?)

The only problem in all of these cases is that, not only do the speakers have little idea of what the supposed object of their communication is thinking; in most cases a direct verbal thrust produces an equivalent reaction in the opposite direction by the recipient. The recognition of this truth has created a whole brand of therapy, called motivational interviewing (MI).

In MI, the therapist simply restates and explores whatever the therapy client tells the therapist. This approach is based on the simple principle that lecturing people to change doesn't work, and in fact cements their current dysfunctional views and actions. If you want people to reconsider their behavior, you must enter their minds enough to allow them to review their way of doing things.

Perhaps the best example of the futility of lecturing people to acknowledge guilt and change their ways is Judge Judy - the widely syndicated small claims court TV show presided over by former family court judge, Judith Sheindlin. Sheindlin regularly lectures plaintiffs and defendants about their misdeeds - indeed, about the whole direction of their lives.

But I have never yet seen a person acknowledge any fault based on Judge Judy's lectures when questioned after their hearing. Not once. Being humiliated in front of millions of TV viewers (and probably more important to the participants, several score of court room spectators) makes people defensive, not open to self-examination and change.

I don't think that Bush's asking Putin why Russia is intent on bringing Georgia to its knees or Juntas why China refuses to allow protestors to speak up would bring about instant change in these countries' policies. But at least the President would have some notion when asked what exactly is on the minds of those who can, and do, impact the lives of billions of people worldwide.

Stanton Peele's new book (with Ilse Thompson), is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. Follow his guided self-cure program at

P.S. (Meet the Press, March 1, 2009):

Tell us, Robert Gates, what's the difference between working under Barack Obama and working under George W. Bush?

"I think that probably President Obama is somewhat more analytical. And he makes sure he hears from everybody in the room on an issue. And if they don't speak up, he calls on them."

And the former president?

"President Bush was interested in hearing different points of view but didn't go out of his way to make sure everybody spoke if they hadn't spoken up before," Gates said.

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. Follow Stanton on Twitter and at